Students Empowered by Software

Article excerpt

Advances in computer graphics are bringing bold new dimensions to learning.

Recent advances in the field of computer graphics have particular significance for education. Sophisticated graphics application software running on powerful yet affordable desktop computers has opened new vistas in CAD, visualization, design, modeling, simulation, and animation. Just as important, the ability to combine these multiple software applications with a range of hardware tools has continued to improve, providing capabilities that exceed the sum of the parts. Educators are applying these integrated solutions to support educational objectives and, in many cases, to engage students in modes of learning and exploring never before possible.

Some of the most dramatic examples of how the latest graphics software is transforming the learning experience come from the disciplines of architecture and engineering. Architecture professors, for instance, have discovered that combinations of 3D programs allow students to solve design and construction problems in entirely new ways.

At the University of Houston College of Architecture's Computer Design Center, students take advantage of the dynamic rendering and visualization features of Autodesk's 3D Studio and AutoCAD applications to explore the aesthetics and functionality of architectural spaces.

"We're building computer models that allow students to experience the space they're designing and get more of an understanding of what it feels like to be a participant in that space," says Elizabeth Bollinger, associate professor and director of the center. "3D models let them experiment with conditions that affect the aesthetic quality of that environment, such as color, materials, and lighting."

Bollinger says 3D Studio's materials editing capabilities have proven especially valuable. Students can assign materials and textures to surfaces, either selecting from a built-in library or creating their own. Working on an addition to the Houston Arboretum and Nature Space, they photographed the wooded area surrounding the site, then scanned the photo into the materials editor and applied it to the windows on the 3D image of the interior. The final result helped community members visualize how the expansion would impact the surroundings. "You have the exact effect of looking outside the building and seeing what really exists there," says Bollinger. "That's a very powerful capability, because building a [computerized] 3D model of landscape elements is almost impossible."

Integration among AutoCAD, 3D Studio, and Autodesk's Animator Pro enables the university's architecture students to combine the best features of all three programs. Students routinely enhance animated sequences created in 3D Studio with Animator Pro's special effects, such as fades and dissolves.

There is perhaps no more striking example of the impact new graphics capabilities are having in education than enhancements to computer-aided design software. CAD has lately taken students beyond computerized production of engineering drawings--a relatively recent development in itself--to unprecedented realms of design manipulation and CAD/CAM integration.

2D ENHANCEMENTS

"2D capabilities are being enhanced significantly," notes Alan Kalameja, head of the CAD department at Trident Technical College in Charleston, S.C. One powerful new 2D CAD feature Trident students learn is called extended entity data, which allows different kinds of data fields to be attached to design elements.

"Imagine a floor plan with door symbols and windows and appliances," says Kalameja. "You can tag a window with information such as the type of window, supplier, and cost. These attributes can then be used for bill of material extraction, through integration with either a third-party package or one of the popular database programs."

In manufacturing applications, attributes can be transferred to a manufacturing requirements planning (MRP) package, providing not only bill of materials extraction but additional functions such as inventory control and work cell machinery requirements. …